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And An Addendum

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Okay, for what it’s worth–I agree with Robert.

The use of the word “traditional” for the third kind of detective story on my list is problematic.

The problem is, I can’t think of another term, and the distinction is important.

I would say, by the way, that both Conon Doyle and Stout wrote soft boiled mysteries–private detective, first person, concentration on that detective and what he does (not on the suspects and what they think and do), and a relative lack of blood, gore and cynicism.

And you can complain about Raymond Chandler all you want, but ask any 50 private eye writers who best exemplifies the hard boiled, and Chandler is the first name they’ll come up with.  In fact, the term “hard boiled” was invented to describe Chandler.

Sayers was soft boiled in every respect but one–her detective was an amateur. 

But traditional in my definition from the last two posts describes virtually all of Christie’s Poirot and Marple series. 

If you don’t believe me, go back and look.  Once you start paying attention, it’s remarkable how little of any of Christie’s Poirot novels concern Poirot, and that is most especially true of her most famous ones–Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

In the Marple series, the concentration on everybody and anybody aside from the detective is blatant.  In a couple of those cases, Jane Marple isn’t ever present on the scene.

The distinction is important because, when all is said and done, that last category gives detective fiction its widest possible scope.

In the traditional detective novel as I have defined it,  the detective novel comes closest to doing what a novel is supposed to allow a writer and a reader to do–get into the heads of people different from ourselves and let us live in them for a while.

And it’s an old tradition, too.  It may postdate Sherlock Holmes, but not by much. 

And it does, in the end, make a book more interesting to me, both to read and to write. 

I think a book about Gregor Demarkian would be interesting to write–but only one book, not twenty-four.  There isn’t a character on the face of this planet that could remain honestly unforcedly interesting for twenty four books.

And then, for me, the interest in crime is in the psychology and operations of criminals–not any criminals, but criminals of a certain type.

The vast majority of criminals are, let’s face it, monumentally boring.  A great deal of crime seems to be committed out of stupidity.

I mean, for God’s sake, exactly how dim do you have to be to get arrested for DUI twice in one night?  Or to call the bank and tell them to get the money ready, because you’re going to be over there in ten minutes to rob them?

And yes, those are both true stories.

And the really sad thing is, they’re not as stupid as stupid gets.  I mean, what do you do with some idiot who responds to a baby’s collicky crying by picking it up by the feet and smashing its head into the wall?

There are plenty of stupid people in the world, and plenty of people who are never quite introduced to civilization–people born into families so dysfunctional they never even figure out how to run a personal schedule, people born with true mental illnesses like schizophrenia,  people who (for whatever reason) live on the edges of normal life in street gangs or drug running operations or prostitution.

When people like that commit crimes, it does not surprise me, because in a way their lives are defined by crime.    If you run with a street gang, I don’t see that anybody should be shocked if you end up killing somebody.

The kinds of crimes and criminals that interest me are those who seem, at least on the surface, to be part of that very civilization the street gangs have rejected–the ones who hold down ordinary middle class jobs, have middle class marriages and families, have middle class lives.

I stress middle class because I think that extremes of wealth and poverty both produce a lot of people with distorted ideas about the world, and that they also tend to produce people with very little interior organization.

When I was still teaching my remedial kids, the thing I noticed most about the absolute bottom of my classes was that lack of organization–kids who had grown up in houses with no schedules at all, no settled wake up times or bed times, no settled times from breakfast or lunch of dinner, no sense that on Tuesday they were supposed to go to soccer practice and on Sunday they were supposed to go to church.

A lot of those kids and their parents had gotten into a lot of trouble for truancy in elementary school and high school, but I don’t think truancy was really what was happening.   I think there was just no schedule, and because there was just no schedule–well, it got hard to remember what day of the week it was.  Among other things.

My kids were among the best in their neighborhoods.  The worst never got near one of my classes.  But I was never surprised when I picked up the local paper and found that one of them had been arrestedfor holding up a convenience store or soliciting or breach of the peace or any of the other myriad petty crimes that seemed to regularly punctuate their lives.  They weren’t bad.  They were just drifty.

(And, I want to point out here, they were by no means the the entire population of their neighborhoods.  In those neighborhoods there were families with schedules, single mothers singlehandedly imparting all the organization and work ethic you could want–but those kids never ended up in remedial classes.  They got all expenses paid tickets to Storrs and better.)

The problem with the other extreme is more complicated, but not as complicated as you might think. 

People at the top of the economic pyramid who commit crimes–and especially who commit murder–tend to have that same lack of interior organization.  It’s a product, I think, of having parents, teachers, coaches and servants to create schedules for you and then see that you stick to them.  

Most very rich criminals–violent criminals, to be specific–are pretty much the same as most very poor violent criminals. 

They’re very simply thugs.

I don’t know.  Maybe I’m deficient in not being able to work up an interest in people like that, but I’m not able, and that’s it. 

What does interest me are people who have all the earmarks of the straightforwardly normal, who do all the things normal people do, and yet who decide that killing is the logical next step in getting what they want–killing for the insurance money, or so that their wives can’t take the house in the divorce, or because if he can’t have her nobody can. 

If there is a drug addiction involved, I no longer care.  I think drugs just seem so monumentally stupid to me that I can’t work up the energy.

And the money angle always interests me more than the others, maybe because it seems so bloodless.

Think about the woman who just died in prison–okay, it’s still early, I can’t remember her name–who calmed “befriended” and then killed off a dozen elderly men in order to go on cashing their Social Security checks.

I am also interested, I’ll admit, in facades, in people like Scot Peterson, who manage to function in the world and be perceived as normal when they are anything but.

And that, for me, is what a detective story is for–it’s why I like to read them, and why I like to write them. 

What I want is some  insight into how such people think, into what drives them, into how they get to be what they are. 

And no, I couldn’t get that from a psychological study.  Most of the psychological studies I’ve read about this stuff have seemed to me to be absolutely clueless.   They begin from assumptions about human nature that are largely false, and then try to cram the reality into the theory.

Maybe that’s why the social science track record on things like predicting who will reoffend if they’re let out on parole–or curing addiction–is so abysmal.

No, what I want, from any work of fiction I read, or watch, or listen to, is that insightinto other people’s heads. 

And that’s what one entire, long established branch of the detective story can give me.

It’s also, by the way, what some true crime tries to give me these days.

Which is why I’m nearly as addicted to the ID channel as I am to the tea.

And tea is waiting.

Written by janeh

April 30th, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'And An Addendum'

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  1. I fully agree that Chandler embodies “hard-boiled.” I just don’t think hard-boileds are generally detective novels as distinguished from mysteries. (I generally use “mystery” for a story more or less in compliance with the Detection Club Oath and “crime fiction” for most of the output of the MWA, but the distinction is the same.) Hammett was an exception, of course.

    Perhaps if one put all those men in alleys with .45 automatics to one side and limited the detective novel to those with a central mystery which can be understood by rational thought applied to the evidence given? In that case, we can divide then into “detective-centered” and “suspect-focused” which corresponds, I think, to your “soft-boiled” and “traditional.”

    They each have hazzards, I think. Peter Wimsey pretty well had to be retired when he was. I’ll still back him against all comers for the most real fictional detective–and that meant he was getting older, had family and obligations, and couldn’t just drop everything and go haring off after naked corpses in bathtubs any more. If you make the detective less real, so you can go on using Nero and Archie for 40 years, that creates its own problems.

    But the suspect-focused mystery has to give me a look at the minds of the suspects without sabotaging the mystery, or not show the thoughts of the criminal without the reader realizing the omission. It also runs the risk that I may find the criminal’s motive incomprehensible and the physical evidence inconclusive. (No names, no pack drill.)

    Which is why there are generally more unsatisfactory novels of any type than first-rate ones. And as for why people read second-tier detective-centered stories, I’ll stand by my original analysis–comfort food. (Me? The JD Robb “Eve Dallas” books–bad mysteries, second-tier romance, and unspeakably bad SF. And I own every one.)


    30 Apr 11 at 10:33 am

  2. Comfort-food is probably a huge part of why I read some books. The characters call to me and the plot is often secondary.
    But then there comes something like George R.R. Martin’s “The Game of Thrones” — and I watched the first episode on HBO with my ‘younger’ son and now I’m gobbling up the books. Plot and characters both have me.

    Kathie Goblirsch

    30 Apr 11 at 8:58 pm

  3. Jane, will you elaborate on the false assumptions about human nature that lead to the bad track record for predicting recidivism? Possibly not interesting to anyone else, but riveting for me. (For my sins, one of my assignments at work is prosecuting ‘sex predator’ cases, which require a finding that the ‘respondent’ is more likely than not to reoffend. The legal contortions are bizarre.)



    30 Apr 11 at 10:37 pm

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